Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker.” — Proverbs 14:31
It’s not my habit to start a column with a quotation from the Bible, but this one’s loaded with self-professed Christians, so why not?
In the mid-1990s, during my time as a metro reporter and feature writer for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, I started writing stories about people who lived in poverty.
I learned early to avoid certain words and descriptions that ignited the ire of certain readers who would rather shame fellow Americans for their dire circumstances than consider why so many of them live in poverty. And often just blocks away from our front doors.
As a columnist, I still sometimes fall back on those rules:
Unless crucial to the story, don’t refer to the flat-screen television in the living room or the car in the driveway, no matter how many miles are on it. A depressing number of people will want to know why a poor person needs a TV or an independent mode of transportation.
Avoid mentioning a tattoo unless it’s central to the narrative. Even then, brace yourself for the onslaught of angry readers demanding to know whether taxpayer money paid for that ink.
And just skip the part about the gold cross dangling around the neck of the grieving mother. I admit this is born of self-preservation. The number of people who are more interested in how she got her jewelry than how her son died will eat at your soul.
So here we are, facing another round of legislative attempts to humiliate poor people who can’t fight back. Lots of headlines but little noise from most of us. I’m not the cynic who thinks everybody’s heart has shriveled to stone. I do, however, worry that our exhaustion is fueling these heartless victories.
In Missouri, the pending House Bill 813 stipulates, “A recipient of supplemental nutrition assistance program benefits shall not use such benefits to purchase cookies, chips, energy drinks, soft drinks, seafood, or steak.”
This bill was introduced by state Rep. Rick Brattin, who identifies himself and his family on his website as “devoted Christians.”
In Wisconsin, a new bill would dictate that Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits could not be used to buy crab, lobster, shrimp, or any other variety of shellfish.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, the Baptist preacher’s son who insists his marching orders come from God, wants to take it further: Anyone who applies for unemployment, food stamps or another assistance program would have to prove his or her sobriety.
“This is not a punitive measure. This is about getting people ready for work,” he said. “I’m not making it harder to get government assistance. I’m making it easier to get a job.”
In Kansas, we have Gov. Sam Brownback, who last year said, “Our dependence is not on big government, but it’s on a big God, who loves us and lives within us.”
Brownback just signed a bill into law that prevents welfare recipients from spending their assistance on “expenditures in a liquor store, casino, jewelry store, tattoo or body piercing parlor, spa, massage parlor, nail salon, lingerie shop, tobacco paraphernalia store, vapor cigarette store, psychic or fortune telling business, bail bond company, video arcade, movie theater, swimming pool, cruise ship, theme park, dog or horse racing facility or sexually oriented retail business.”
You might wonder whether there was any evidence of such widespread spending, but that would mean you’re in search of facts and you’re definitely not going to fit in with this crowd.
State Sen. Michael O’Donnell, also the son of a pastor who likes to mention Jesus when explaining his opposition to helping the poor, told the Topeka Capital-Journal last month: “We’re trying to make sure those benefits are used the way they were intended. This is about prosperity. This is about having a great life.”
Democratic state Sen. David Haley’s response: “This is a troubling elitism here that this body is embracing during what, for many of us, is Holy Week. We really have to look in the mirror. We can’t say something on Wednesday and shift gears on Sunday and think somebody isn’t paying attention.”
As the late Rev. William Sloane Coffin once put it, “it is ironic to think of the number of people in this country who pray for the poor and needy on Sunday and spend the rest of the week complaining that the government is doing something about them.”
“Ironic” isn’t the word that immediately comes to my mind, but what do I know? I’m just a Christian-in-training, not one of those experts willing to insult our Maker.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and an essayist for Parade magazine. She is the author of two books, including …and His Lovely Wife, which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate. To find out more about Connie Schultz (firstname.lastname@example.org) and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.
Photo: Jerry Worster via Flickr